WVU Opens Big East Tourney Play

When West Virginia faces Villanova in the opening round of the Big East Tournament at 7 p.m. tonight, the Mountaineers will play the lone league foe they have yet to see in head coach Marlon LeBlanc's two seasons.

If familiarity breeds contempt, this match has almost no feel to it. There's no dislike, no real history. The teams have played 19 times over a 25-year period, WVU having won 11. This will be the first postseason meeting, and there's a bit of a business-like approach for West Virginia. The No. 16 Mountaineers (12-5-1, 7-3-1) are a virtual lock for a school-record third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, and are playing for home field and a second straight trip to the conference finals after losing 1-0 to St. John's in 2006 on a goal with four seconds left in overtime.

Villanova (10-8-1, 5-5-1) will not make the NCAA field without at least a win over WVU tonight, and will likely have to defeat Louisville in the quarterfinals as well. That's two road victories in four days for a team that has won one of its last eight. The Wildcats have lost four consecutive road games, and will be content to "bunker," according to LeBlanc, and sit in a 4-5-1, trying to keep the Mountaineers out of the nets before counterattacking quickly. That might be the lone way to stay in the game and prolong 17-year head coach Larry Sullivan's career. The Philadelphia native and Temple grad will retire at the end of the season.

"They are playing for their lives and they are playing for their coach," LeBlanc said. "They are dangerous, but no more so than any of the teams we have played this year. If we just prepare the way we have been preparing for every game we will be OK. In the attack, they try to transition pretty quickly but it's nothing we haven't seen before this season."

That still might have been a concern three weeks ago. A 1-0 home loss to Navy left West Virginia at 8-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big East. The Mountaineers had won one game (3-1 at Pitt) in which an opponent had scored. Its offense drought – WVU failed to score in three of five games, counting Navy – betrayed a defense that had allowed the fewest goals in the NCAA, and still has, at six. LeBlanc made a few changes, and suddenly the Mountaineers began to finish chances. In a sport with such fine lines between winning and losing, scoring and not, the addition of 6-4 Jason Bristol into the back line and a switch within the forwards has boosted WVU's goals per game average to 2.3 over its last trio of outings.

West Virginia scored three goals each against Seton Hall and Providence, sandwiching a 1-0 win at Lafayette. In the season finale against the Friars, Bristol broke his nose on a header goal, his second of the season. The other came in the 1-0 win over No. 1 Connecticut; the sophomore will still get the start tonight.

"I think we have just been a little bit more fortunate in front of the goal," LeBlanc said. "It hasn't been that we haven't been creating opportunities. They just haven't been going in. Now they have started to go in. We have stuck with the same game plan and you're seeing it pay off right now. I think defensively we are a solid team. We don't give up a whole lot of shots and we don't give up a lot of dangerous opportunities. Defensively we just have to remain compact and limit teams from doing what they want to do."

For Villanova, that's a direct style playing a lot of balls through the defense. The ‘Cats have been shutout in their six losses in eight games, however, and are not creating as well as they were earlier in the year, when they defeated then-No. 1 Duke – on its home field – and NC State in winning six of the first seven. Villanova was rated as high as 23rd, then began dropping games due to lack of offense. Through the first 11 games this season, the Wildcats scored 18 goals. Over the final seven contests, the `Cats managed just four, three of which came from sophomore forward Mike Seamon in the second half of a 3-2 win over Syracuse on Oct. 24. Villanova's only other goal in that stretch came last Saturday, when freshman back Chris Christian finished a free kick from Miles Harrison with a bicycle kick for a second half score against Louisville.

The most dangerous offensive weapon is Seamon, who leads Villanova with nine goals, two assists and 20 points. His best individual game came at Syracuse with the natural hat trick in the second half. Four of Seamon's goals were game winners and he has 48 shots. He also led the team in scoring as a freshman last season and now has 11 career goals. Villanova's cornerstone remains its defensive wall, anchored by senior co-captain Matt Sleece and Christian in the middle. They are aided by Harrison on one side and the tandem of senior Farris Fakhoury and Nick Rouzier on the other. VU allowed a shade over one goal per game this season and crafted a shutout streak of more than 500 minutes during a six-game winning streak in September.

Overall, however, the Villanova has won 11 games in Division I just once before, that coming in 1991 in Sullivan's first season. This is a program without much historical success, and one that will psychologically approach the game with little to lose – a danger for the Mountaineers, who are teetering on the edge of gaining a series of goodies, home field and 15 regular season wins among them.

"I think we are starting to find our form. Our backs were against the wall when we were sitting at 8-5 wondering what we do now," LeBlanc said. "We've reeled off a 4-0-1 record over the last couple weeks so I think we are starting to hit our stride. We are playing our best soccer of the year."

The two squads last met in 2005 when the Mountaineers lost 2-1 at Villanova. This year's bid marks the Mountaineers' sixth appearance in the Big East tournament since joining the conference in 1995.

Notes: This is the 12th Big East meeting in a series that began in 1995. Villanova owns a 7-4 edge in the previous encounters, all of which have taken place in the regular season ... The `Cats are 3-3 all-time at WVU, their most recent visit coming in 2004, a 1-0 loss ... These two squads have not met since the 2005 season, when VU picked up a 2-1 win over the Mountaineers ... This will be the first time the two schools have ever met in the postseason and Villanova's third BE berth in four years … The `Cats have never advanced beyond their first game, though their last two contests ended in ties with Georgetown in 2004 and 2005. In both instances, the Hoyas advanced on penalty kicks.


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